Friday, March 16, 2018

5 Tips for Getting Started with Sketchnoting

Rachel Burnham writes: I have recently started offering workshops in Sketchnoting and as a result have been contacted by a couple of people asking for help in getting started with Sketchnoting and making use of visuals in their work. 

Sketchnotes combine simple pictures, with words and graphics – they are often colourful and are a way of making notes that are memorable and aid reflection and sense-making.  I started Sketchnoting about 3 years ago and these are some of the things that have helped me.

Recent Sketchnote summarising a book chapter

1.  Getting beyond ‘I can’t draw’ and ‘I’m terrible at drawing’

If I am ever talking about Sketchnoting or drawing or using visuals at work, someone is bound to say ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I’m terrible at drawing’.  So many of us hold this belief!    And of course, this belief makes it hard for us to get started at drawing or sketching, which in turn makes makes it harder for us to practise and get better and more confident at drawing.

As children we all draw.  Confidently, unworriedly, messily, happily.   And then most of us stop.  There are all sorts of factors in why we stop, but opportunities to practise and fear of looking foolish are probably two key ones. 

The latter is something I work with all the time – I can picture this rather disapproving looking person with her hands on her hips looking over her shoulder at my pictures and pursing her lips and saying ‘What makes you think you can draw!’ She is probably based on one of the art teachers I had at school.

I find what helps me to ignore this voice, is to recognise that there are all kinds of levels of ‘drawing’ and types of drawing.  There is beautiful art work, there are rigorous representations of the real world, there are lovely drawn illustrations in children’s books, there are cartoons – so many styles, so many purposes for drawing.   And what I draw  is ‘good enough’ for my purpose  - my Sketchnotes work for me – they help me to recall information, I refer back to them all the time,  they help me to make sense of disparate information, to summarise what I am listening to or reading and so on.  And I know from sharing them, that other people find them of interest and of use.  So, they work and that is ‘good enough’. 

This is my very, very first Sketchnote from June 2015 - we all have to start somewhere!  

And secondly, I can see that my pictures are getting better all the time.  

This was live-Sketchnoted in November 2017 - my Sketchnoting has definitely come on a bit! 

I think we can all draw.  But like any skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  And for many of us, we haven’t drawn for a long time, so we are rather rusty and a bit stiff and self-conscious.   We need to play and relax and have fun.

2.  Make it easy to acquire the drawing habit

If you want to draw, then you need to make it easy to practise.   And that means have things to draw with easily to hand. 

For Sketchnoting, I use A4 blank notepads that are spiral bound.  I prefer using Staedtler triplus fineliner pens – they are easily available for lots of shops and when the children are starting back at school, can usually be found at a better price.

I now always carry a pencil, black felt tip, rubber and pencil sharpener so that I can draw whether I am – I have them pre-loaded into my everyday handbag.  I recently read Gretchen Rubin’s book about habits ‘Better than Before’ and she says if you want to build a habit, one approach is to make it convenient.

3.  Practise – build your visual repertoire

Even if you think you can’t draw, there may be things that you already doodle.  Sunni Brown in ‘The Doodle Revolution’ suggests that there are different kinds of doodlers – some of us are drawn to doodling words, some to faces, some to abstract shapes and some to naturalistic shapes.   If I am ever in a meeting or long phone call, I will find that my notes are interspersed with doodles – mostly plants – sunflowers, roses, trees, tropical climbers and ferny dells.   So you may find that there are some things you can already draw – even if it is only arrows – and this in part will be because you are already practising them – they have become part of your repertoire.

The next step is to practise drawing simple outlines, to form simple images of things.   I would suggest objects – it is useful to build up a bank of simple images/icons that you are likely to use eg laptop, mobile phone, pens, car, sun, sea.  What images you are likely to use will vary depending on the field you are working in.

Secondly, think of metaphors for more abstract ideas and again practise drawing them eg heart, rainbow, mountain top, ladder, measuring tape.

It is also good to practise lettering and symbols such as exclamation marks, question marks, plus signs, speech or thinking bubbles.
Gradually, build up the range of things you feel comfortable drawing.   This takes time.  I am still working on this.   

4.  Practise – listening and sketchnoting

The next step if you want to Sketchnote is to put it altogether and create sketchnotes.   Again, it is useful to practise.

A useful place to start is to create a Sketchnote to summarise something you have read or to listen to a podcast and summarise key points in a Sketchnote.  

When Sketchnoting from a podcast or to a ‘live’ session, listening is key.   You can’t capture everything, so deciding what to include and what to skip is essential.

5.  Let go of perfection

I want to return to the mindset needed for Sketchnoting as I think this is the crucial thing.   When you are Sketchnoting, you don’t need to aim for perfection in your drawing – actually I don’t think this is possible or even desirable. 

I think the drawings I do are a bit like home grown vegetables from my allotment – they may not have the glossy perfection you would find on a supermarket shelf, but they taste good!   Like a home-made cake, that is sometimes a bit wonky, hand drawn images may not be perfect, but they are personal and memorable.

Marmalade Cake - with a terrible crack in it, but it tasted lovely! 

So, don’t worry if your Sketchnote isn’t perfect – if a line is a bit wobbly or a drawing a bit hard for anyone else to recognise.   If I make a mistake, I draw a flower over it!

Have fun and have a go!

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D works with individuals and organisations to help them learn and work more effectively.  As part of this I help L&D professionals to be even more effective through updating their skills and know-how.  I have a particular interest in curation and the use of digital technologies in learning.  I frequently Sketchnote at events and offer workshops in Sketchnoting.  

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